1988 - Turning the Corner Hard and Fast
12-4 record, first of five in AFC East, first of 14 in AFC, first of 28 in NFL
The 1987-88 offseason was much quieter than the 1986-87 off-season. The Bills traded for 33-year-old defensive end Art Still of the Kansas City Chiefs and traded away starting linebacker Eugene Marve to the Buccaneers. Marve was essentially replaced by Cornelius Bennett the previous season and Ray Bentley was ready to take over at starting linebacker as well. The Bills did not have a first round draft pick due to the Bennett trade and were forced to wait until the second round to make their first selection. With the pick the Bills selected the missing piece to their offensive puzzle by adding franchise cornerstone Thurman Thomas in the second round. Despite being a Heisman finalist his senior year, a knee injury hurt Thomas's draft stock and he fell to 40th overall where the Bills took him. In later rounds the Bills would add nose tackle Jeff Wright in the eighth round and linebacker Carlton Bailey in the ninth.
Just before the season was about to begin, Buffalo lost two key contributors. Starting running back Robb Riddick was suspended for a month for violating the league's new drug policy. The suspension took effect on August 5th and Riddick was able to return by the season opener. At the time Riddick was returning defensive anchor Bruce Smith was suspended by the NFL for four weeks under the same policy and would miss the first four games of the season. In week one, Art Still proved why he was acquired by recording 2.5 of Buffalo's 6 sacks in a 13-10 win over the Vikings. In week two Andre Reed caught 8 balls for 122 yards but the Bills could not find the end zone. Even so they managed a 9-6 win on the leg of Scott Norwood despite four turnovers. Following another close victory in week 3 the Bills were surviving by the skin of their teeth by winning close games. They were 3-0 but had won their games by an average of under 3 points per game. An eight-point win over Pittsburgh in week 4 got the Bills off to a quick 4-0 record before a loss to Chicago derailed the hot start. In the Chicago game the Bills offense was held to zero total rushing yards. The Bills proceeded to win their next six games to stand at 10-1 heading into a divisional match-up against the New York Jets. With five games remaining the Bills led the Patriots and Colts by four games and the Jets by four and a half. A win would clinch the division for the Bills with a full month left in the regular season. The Bills rushing attack was balanced - Riddick carried 18 times for 103 yards and rookie Thomas carried 17 times for 88 yards but neither team could punch it into the end zone. Entering the fourth quarter tied at 3 apiece both teams managed only a field goal more in the fourth quarter. With 19 seconds left in regulation the Jets lined up for the winning kick. Nose tackle Fred Smerlas knifed through the line and put a paw on Pat Leahy's 40-yard attempt forcing overtime. Less than four minutes into the extra period Scott Norwood kicked the game-winner giving Buffalo the dramatic 9-6 win. It was Buffalo's first AFC East title since 1980 and after suffering the hardships of the early and mid 80's Bills fan were ready to celebrate. Van Miller's memorable call of the game included the now-famous "Fandemonium" as the stands emptied and Bills fans rushed the field to celebrate. With the division wrapped up, the Bills had little to play for entering a must-win showdown for the 9-3 Cincinnatti Bengals featuring Sam Wyche on the sidelines and Boomer Esiason under center. Rookie running back Ickey Woods rushed for 129 yards, running back James Brooks added 93 on the ground, and Boomer threw for 238 yards as the number one offense in the league jumped out to a 21-0 second quarter lead. The Bills made a game of it in the fourth quarter cutting the lead to a touchdown but the Bengals scored again leaving the final score 35-21. The following week the Bills lost a 10-5 decision to the Buccaneers. They split their last two games to finish the year 12-4 to tie the 1964 Bills for the most regular season wins in franchise history. In the final game of the year the Bills beat the Raiders in from of 77,348 fans to set the all-time single-season NFL attendance record of 622,793. The fans were excited come playoff time.
The Bills were the number two seed that year losing a tiebreaker to the Bengals they would eventually regret. Because the wild card game-winning Oilers were in the same division as the Bengals they were not allowed to meet in the divisional round and came to the number two seed Bills instead. The Bills special teams would ultimately win the day. After a scoreless first quarter, Buffalo safety Leonard Smith blocked a punt to set up running back Robb Riddick's 1-yard touchdown. Houston responded by driving 71 yards and kicking a 35-yard field goal to cut the score to 7-3. In the third quarter, Thurman Thomas scored on an 11-yard touchdown run. Then in the fourth period, Buffalo defensive back Mark Kelso intercepted a pass from Warren Moon and returned it 28 yards to the Oilers 18-yard line, setting up kicker Scott Norwood's 27-yard field goal to increase their lead to 17–3. With just over 5 minutes left in the game Houston cut the lead to 17-10. The following Bills drive stalled and the team was forced to punt. The Oilers front office would not be happy with the result when Steve Tasker forced a fumble while tackling returner Curtis Duncan. Linebacker Ray Bentley recovered the ball, allowing Buffalo to run out the rest of the clock. Buffalo moved on to the AFC Championship game against the number one offense in the NFL - the Cincinnati Bengals. They also tied the franchise record with 13 wins in one season.
In the AFC Championship game the offense could never find its rhythm. Thurman Thomas was held to just 6 yards on 4 carries, while quarterback Jim Kelly completed only 14 of 30 passes for 161 yards and 1 touchdown, with 3 interceptions. The defense did their part holding NFL MVP Boomer Esiason in check. He completed only 11 of 20 passes for 94 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. But just as in their regular season meeting the Bengals running game was able to dominate the Bills gaining 175 yards on the ground, 102 yards and 2 touchdowns coming from Ickey Woods. In a see-saw battle the Bengals jumped to a 7-0 lead following a Kelly interception. On the strength of 4 consecutive completions the Bills scored on a 9-yard Andre Reed catch to tie the score. After forcing a punt Buffalo drove once again down the field and Scott Norwood missed a 43-yard attempt. The Bengals once again punted but Kelly threw another interception which led to a ten-yard touchdown pass and a 14-7 lead for the Bengals. Following a Mark Kelso interception and return the Bills kick a 39-yard field goal to cut the score to 14-10 at the half. After the break the Bills offense was doomed. Every Buffalo drive began inside their own 23-yard line and they were held to 53 yards, 2 first downs, and 0 points. Late in the third quarter, Bengals running backgained 6 yards on a fake punt and Cincinnati drove to score on Woods' second touchdown of the game, increasing their lead to 21–10. The run was set-up by a Derrick Burroughs late hit personal foul and subsequent ejection from the game. After Rob Riddick was hit with a personal foul on the kickoff the Bills offense finally responded with a drive into Bengals territory, but safety David Fulcher picked off a desperate fourth down pass from Kelly in the end zone. The Bengals steamrolled to four first downs to run the clock out and hand Buffalo it's fifth and final loss of the year. The Bengals forced 3 interceptions, and allowed only 45 rushing yards and 136 passing yards, while their offense held the ball for 39:29. The Bengals ultimately lost to the Niners in the Super Bowl on "The Drive" orchestrated by Joe Montana in the final minute.
The offense wasn't dominant yet ranking only 14 in points scored and 12 in yards gained. The rookie Thomas rushed for 881 yards but only 2 TDs. Robb Riddick scored the bulk of the rushing touchdowns going for six points 12 times (4th-most in the NFL). With contributions from other players the Bills ranked seventh in rushing. The passing offense was fifteenth. Andre Reed caught 71 balls for 968 yards and Jim Kelly threw for 3380 yards (6th in the NFL) with only 15 TDs and 17 INTs. Scott Norwood's 32 field goals and 86.5% field goal percentage were by far career bests. Norwood scored the most points in the NFL that year with 129 total points. The defense were the ones who stepped up big in 1988 ranking in the top 12 in every category except turnovers. They were third in points allowed, fourth in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed,and twelfth in rushing yards allowed. Mark Kelso picked off 7 passes in the regular season, adding two more in the postseason, and topped the league in INT return yards. Bruce Smith tied for eleventh in sacks with 11 on the year in only twelve games.
With a good record came recognition for many Buffalo Bills players and staff. Marv Levy was named Coach of the Year and Bill Polian was named NFL Executive of the Year by the Sporting News. Quarterback Jim Kelly and defenseive end Bruce Smith made return trips to the Pro Bowl and were joined by reciever Andre Reed, center Kent Hull, nose tackle Fred Smerlas, linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Shane Conlan, and kicker Scott Norwood on the AFC squad. Kent Hull was named second team All-Pro and Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, and Scott Norwood were all named All-Pros. Of all the postseason honorees only Smerlas was over the age of thirty. For the second time in two years the Bills added a lineman to the Wall of Fame by awarding Billy Shaw the honor. Shaw played nine years of his career in Buffalo, was named to the All-AFL team four times, played in eight AFL All-Star Games, and was named to the All-Time AFL team. In addition he was named to the All-Decade Pro Team consisting of players from both NFL and AFL rosters.